This Sunday, local veterans and their families will rally outside Brooklyn VA Hospital to oppose the possible closure of the hospital, which veteran advocates say could be on the table.

Longtime veteran advocate Lee Covino is planning two rallies with Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (NY-11) for this weekend — one at Brooklyn VA Hospital at 800 Poly Pl. at 2:00pm and another at Staten Island VA Clinic at 1150 South Ave at 12:00pm, facilities that Covino says are at risk of reduced services or closure.

Covino said the fears stemmed from an upcoming set of recommendations being made by VA to the independent Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, which he says include closing the Brooklyn VA Hospital and creating a community based outpatient clinic, and reducing Staten Island’s services to mental health only.

Covino told BK Reader he had been made aware of the recommendations by members of the VA nurses’ union, which had been briefed on the recommendations.

“Closing the VA in Brooklyn and changing the Staten Island clinic to mental health only is a great disservice and hardship for Staten Island veterans, many of whom are frail and elderly and in need of medical, not mental health treatment,” Covino said.

He said Staten Island already had the VA Vet Center, which specializes in readjustment counseling, PTSD and other mental health issues.

“Further, linking Staten Island to New Jersey VA facilities in VSN2 is a non-starter, since many veterans here must take public transportation for services.”

He added that privatization of medical services for veterans did not work, as the private medical sector was not set up to address the special needs of veterans who have been exposed to toxins like Agent Orange or burn pit smoke, tropical skin conditions and desert related medical conditions, “not to mention PTSD.”

Covino was instrumental in setting up a VA medical presence in Staten Island in the 90s, and he said the veterans “came in such large numbers” that the VA had to expand the clinic. Currently, Staten Island vets go to the Brooklyn hospital for services that are not available at the clinic.

In 2005, a Price Waterhouse Cooper report on the VA health care system also recommended closing the Brooklyn and Manhattan VA hospitals.

At the time, eleven members of New York’s Congressional delegation, including Brooklyn’s Rep. Nydia Velázquez, sent a letter the Veterans Administration Secretary requesting that the VA keep the Manhattan and Brooklyn VA Hospitals “open and ready to serve New York vets.”

The letter states that: “We believe that closing either hospital would be a serious mistake for the veterans who reside in our district. These hospitals provide outstanding quality of care to veterans, are conveniently located for the populations of veterans they serve and make exceptional use of the fine medical professionals at NYU and SUNY Downstate Medical Schools.”

The VA is required by law to conduct a series of market assessments to examine future demand for health care services among the veteran population, “which is projected to change in size and location over the next decade,” VA NY Harbor Healthcare System Public Affairs Officer Michael A. Drake told BK Reader.

“Veterans will always be at the center of what we do,” Drake said.

“The AIR Commission is an opportunity to redesign VA health care to maximize access and outcomes for current and future generations of Veterans.”

He said the recommendations would change nothing for now, and any potential changes to VA’s health care infrastructure could be several years away and “are dependent on Commission, Presidential and Congressional decisions, as well as robust stakeholder engagement and planning.”

“In the long run, AIR recommendations could impact VHA facilities, but it’s too early to know exactly what or where those impacts might be. VA will remain in all of our health care markets.”

The AIR Commission will review and evaluate the findings and make its own recommendations to the President in early 2023. 

Meanwhile, Covino is urging every vet and family member who cares to voice their opposition to the cuts to come out for the rallies.

Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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